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Mexico's president may have been bluffing about his support for weed decriminalization

President Enrique Peña Nieto told the United Nations in April that he supported a “change of paradigm” in weed laws. He backed this with a proposal to the senate that his own, normally very disciplined, party has now blocked.

by Alan Hernandez
Jun 20 2016, 9:55pm

El presidente Enrique Peña Nieto sosteniendo la reforma antes de presentarla en el mes de abril. (Imagen por Eduardo Verdugo/AP).

The sudden derailing of much-anticipated reforms to legalize medical marijuana in Mexico, as well as raise the possession threshold, has raised doubts over whether President Enrique Peña Nieto's initial promotion of the ideas was ever anything more than good public relations.

"It looks like he never really wanted it," said drug policy expert and activist Lisa Sánchez, noting that it is the president's own Institutional Revolutionary Party that has blocked the reforms. "It's either that, or the PRI now considers that Peña is a liability and his opinion is worth nothing from now until the next presidential elections in 2018."

Sánchez was trying to explain what happened to make the PRI recoil from a proposal that President Peña submitted to legislators in late April. This included both the legalization of marijuana-based medication, and raising the amount of marijuana individuals can carry without risking criminal prosecution from five to 28 grams, or one ounce.

Late this Friday the senate postponed discussion of the bill until next September at the earliest. Some say the delay has ensured that the momentum has now been lost and the most likely outcome is that the liberalization effort is now heading for the shelf.

The president had gained international kudos when he announced the upcoming bill as a "historic step" in his speech to the UN Assembly General's Special Session on drug policy in New York.

"We Mexicans know all about the range and defects of the prohibitionist approach and the war on drugs of the last 40 years," Peña had said. "Our country has suffered like few others from the effects of organized crime linked to drug trafficking."

Related: Mexico's President Has Changed His Mind and Will Attend the Big UN Drug Meeting After All

But once the bill reached Mexico's legislature it came up against the president's party.

Activists were particularly concerned by the removal of the promised threshold increase, and the proposal to reclassify illegal weed possession as an offense in the federal penal code rather than a violation of health legislation.

This would ensure that approximately 13,000 people imprisoned for minor marijuana offenses could no longer be released.

"They are terrified that the effective decriminalization would mean they would have to liberate all those people from prison," Sánchez said.

President Peña's apparent support for liberalization of Mexico's marijuana laws had come as a surprise given his previous explicit rejection of the idea.

It came in the wake of last November's supreme court ruling granting four individuals permission to produce and consume marijuana for recreational purposes. That ruling raised the likelihood of others in a similar vein which would, eventually, have forced legal changes.

While the PRI's senators were still prepared to open the way for the production of medical marijuana, activists objected to the way they changed the original bill to favor a monopoly of big pharmaceutical companies.

The governing party's changes to the president's bill ended up prompting the pro-legalization bloc in the senate to decide it could no longer support the bill.

"This is a dirty attempt to put the ball in your own net," said Sánchez who had originally welcome the president's proposal as a major step in the right direction. "The congress will have to discuss it again but I wouldn't trust our legislators."

Related: Mexico's Marijuana Laws Are About to Get Much More Relaxed

Follow Alan Hernández on Twitter: @alanpasten

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legalization of marijuana-based medication
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un assembly general’s special session on drug policy